Let Nanaimo charm you into distraction

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      Funny things can happen these days en route to Gabriola Island. You just might be waylaid in Nanaimo. In times past, that maybe wasn't such a good thing. After all, Gabriola-based musician Bob Bossin once composed a ditty entitled "It's So Nice Not to Be in Nanaimo". Malcolm Lowry even made a fuss about the journey in his posthumously published novel October Ferry to Gabriola. Plenty of activities suggest the worthiness of an outdoor jaunt to this gulf island just offshore of Nanaimo, from exploring honeycombed sandstone galleries to marvelling at petroglyph-filled meadows. That is, until you set foot in Nanaimo first.

      Despite your best intentions, you might miss the Gabriola ferry that sails from Nanaimo's inner harbour. The first impediment, particularly if you're journeying on foot or by bike from the Lower Mainland, is the plethora of distractions along the four-kilometre Harbourside Walkway, a sea-wall route that runs between B.C. Ferries terminals in Departure Bay and Cameron Island, a snout of land attached to the city's downtown core, and the jumping-off point for Gabriola, 20 minutes away.

      If you've never been to Nanaimo, or you've been for a few years, you'll want to get your bearings. No mountains rear above. Instead, rolling hillsides guide your eyes to the waterfront. Nanaimo bills itself as the Harbour City because of its naturally sheltered, deep-water port. Lightly industrialized compared to Vancouver's harbour, much of its downtown waterway is the domain of marinas and parks. Across a narrow channel from the sea wall lies thickly forested Newcastle Island, whose imposing cliffs are just a stone's throw away. Its companion, the aptly named Protection Island, is not much farther off.

      Soon enough you'll be slowing down to read interpretive signs and take in sculpture installations along the walkway. An imposing statue that at first glance might be mistaken for a British naval commander in a tricorn hat turns out instead to be a likeness of former mayor Frank Ney, who inaugurated the city's annual bathtub race in 1967. (Ney also spawned the sprawl of shopping malls along the Island Highway that drained the life out of Nanaimo's historic downtown core, now in the throes of a spirited revival.)

      Time to get a move on. Don't dawdle as you cross the short Lions Great Bridge that spans the intertidal Millstone River and leads into Maffeo Sutton Park. A jetty juts out toward Newcastle Island. If you're up for an extended walk or bike ride, passenger ferries similar to those in False Creek run every day from May to mid October, to the provincial marine park there, all of five minutes away.

      As you make your way south into the inner harbour, don't be surprised if suddenly you're drawn up short by the sounds of an explosion coupled with the skirl of bagpipes. As much as things have changed in Nanaimo's harbour, one constant is the oldest preserved Hudson's Bay Co. bastion in Canada. This wooden tower, completed in 1853, dominated the inner harbour as a paramilitary installation until it was turned into a museum in 1910. A cannon-firing ceremony is performed here each day at 11:45 a.m., accompanied by a tune from a kilted piper.

      Steps below the bastion, a pier parallels the civic marina. Surmounted by a towering metal mast-and-rigging sculpture, a tourist information centre and shops jostle for space. A gangway leads from there to a series of docks. Two floating cafes Penny's Palapa and Troller's Fish and Chips may lure you down, as well as the sight of a host of boats, large and small, such as the Iron Maiden, which offers fresh seafood for sale. This is where you'll want to be, particularly on sunny days when fishermen-turned-artists can be found painting nautical scenes.

      Adjacent to the bastion at the southern terminus of the walkway lies the glassy new Port Theatre. This is the entrance to old Nanaimo. Laid out in a radial pattern popular in 19th-century England, the streets around the inner harbour are reminiscent of Gastown's cobblestone surfaces and are lined with brick heritage buildings. The graceful curve of the streets lends an air of intimacy to the surroundings. Blocks of stores, restaurants, and galleries feed into each other. This is where any lingering regrets about passing up Gabriola will evaporate.

      Grab a bite to eat, or pick up some picnic goodies and head to either of two municipal parks that define the harbour's outer shoreline. Beginning four kilometres north of Departure Bay, Pipers Lagoon and Neck Point parks offer a feel for Nanaimo's rugged natural side. Groves of Garry oak and arbutus spread their gangly limbs high above rocky headlands. Trails and boardwalks lead out to beaches with views east across the Strait of Georgia to the Lower Mainland and north toward Texada Island. Oh, and there to the south lies Gabriola.

      Maybe next time.


      Access: For information on attractions, activities, accommodation, and dining in Nanaimo, as well as trail maps, call 1-800-663-7337 or visit www.tourismnanaimo.com/ or www.nanaimodowntown.com/ . The Harbourside Walkway begins several blocks south of B.C. Ferries' Departure Bay terminal. Walk or cycle along Terminal Avenue from Departure Bay to reach the car-free pathway's trailhead. For reservations and a schedule of sailings between Horseshoe Bay and Nanaimo, visit www.bcferries.com/ . For information on Newcastle Island Provincial Marine Park, including ferry schedules, visit www.bcparks.ca/ or www.newcastleisland.ca/ . To place a seafood order with the Iron Maiden , call (250) 755-9348. If you're looking to pick up some picnic goodies, two good choices are the Nanaimo Downtown Farmers Market, held in Pioneer Plaza beside the Bastion on Fridays from May until mid October, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., and Maclean's Specialty Foods, 426 Fitzwilliam Street, uphill from the harbour.